Approaching 18th Century Comedies: Workshop

This Wednesday, DST hosted a workshop on 18th Century comedies at the newly refurbished Assembly Rooms Theatre.

The three-hour workshop was jointly held by Durham academic Susan Valladares and theatre director Jake Murray, as they took us through the history of Richard Sheridan’s Restoration comedies, before bringing a few of us onstage to test out some of the playwright’s centuries-old material. Despite the potentially archaic language and very unprepared performers, it was still able to raise a few laughs!

We began with a brief talk about the 18th Century theatrical scene, focusing around Sheridan’s masterwork The School for Scandal.

Jake and Susan observed how, despite many 18th Century plays receiving a successful commercial run at the time, only a scarce few are still performed today. They commented on how quality only plays a small part in keeping plays in circulation – instead, the central factor is whether they can speak to an audience beyond their time. Sheridan can certainly be said to have succeeded with this: his critique of celebrity gossip, for example, almost directly mirrors the later spread of tabloid newspapers.

And in our age of ‘cancel culture’, surely the Restoration’s preoccupation with one’s reputation (which you could make or break with a single word) is more relevant now than ever?

We then had a brief Q&A, where Dr Valladares used her historical expertise to give us more insight into the theatrical practices of the day. Plays would be produced with no set run, simply playing more shows according to demand. This led to some highly lucrative runs, but also some extremely brief ones, as there was no guarantee a play would run for more than one performance.

After a quick break, we moved to the practical part of the workshop. A group of less-than-prepared volunteers clambered onto the Assembly Rooms stage to try out a scene from The School for Scandal, in which the rakish Joseph Surface scandalously flirts with married woman Lady Teazle. Their flirtation is cut short by the abrupt arrival of her husband, forcing Lady Teazle to hide behind a screen while Joseph must distract him – a plan which, according to the cast-iron laws of farce, must of course go hilariously wrong.

Though we ran out of time to explore the full scene, which becomes further complicated by the arrival of Joseph’s brother, we were still able to see the rich comic potential of the text through performance, something I would recommend all English students give a go if they ever have the chance.

A big thank you to Jake Murray and Susan Valladares for providing their time and expertise, and to Experience Durham and the Assembly Rooms team for helping put this workshop on.

By Jacob Freda